David Niall Wilson

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Deep Blue – The Novella

April 13th, 2020 / David Niall Wilson


The novel Deep Blue originated from the novelette by the same name published in an anthology titled Strange Attraction.  In Strange Attraction, all the stories were inspired by the “Kinetic” Art of Lisa Snelling, each author choosing one of the characters on an intricately detailed Ferris wheel sculpture.  I chose a harlequin, hanging by a noose from the bottom of one of the Ferris wheels seats.  I took the image, made it the wallpaper on my computer, printed it out and carried it around with me, and let it sink in.  I could have written any number of stories that would have sufficed, but somehow I knew there would be more to this work, and so I waited.

The publishers of the anthology, Vince and Leslie Harper, invited me to have dinner with them one night when my job took me to Washington DC.  We met for Mexican food and went together to see the movie Pi which, at the time, was newly released.  On the way to meet the Harpers, I walked down into a shadowed subway, and I was assaulted by some of the most haunting saxophone music I’ve ever heard.  It bordered the blues, walked down old jazz roads, and I never saw the musician.  That set the mood for what was to come.

I reached the restaurant without further incident, and we spent a pleasant hour scalding mouths and stomachs with jalapeños and washing them down with beer.  Then came the movie.  I won’t go into detail about Pi, but I’ll say it’s a black and white film, very surreal, filled with symbolism, and it left me visually and emotionally stunned.  I parted company with Vince and his wife, found my way back to the subway and my hotel, and called it a night.

The next day, a friend of mine and I set out to visit the Holocaust Museum.  I have always wanted to see it, but I was not prepared for the intensity of the images, the displays, and the words I would find in that short hour visit.  I purchased a book of poetry written by the victims, and left with so much bottled up inside from those two days that I thought it would be the end of my sanity.

That night, I started to write.  I started to write about The Blues, and how deep they might really get.  I wrote about pain, not my pain, but the pain bottled up inside the world, as the pain had been bottled up inside me, and I wrote a way out.  That was Brandt, his guitar, and his blues.  The story, like the pain, refused to be bottled up in just the few lines of that novelette, and so I released it into the novel you now hold.

Everyone comes to their crossroads eventually – the defining moment of life.  As Old Wally, one of the novel’s main characters tells us – “Crossroads, or the crosshairs.”  Forward or back, but you can’t stay stagnant – that way lies madness.  I give you . . . Deep Blue, Chapter One, also the original novella.

Deep Blue (The Novella)

The lights flickered on.  The stage, moments before a dark world of surreal sound and chord-soaked images, became a snarl of patched cables, scuffed speaker cabinets, and half-assembled equipment.  No one spoke to Brandt as he passed, white makeup blurred with dark lines from the black that lined his eyes and lips, a melting harlequin image of angst and insecurity.  He had his guitar case in one hand and his escort for the night, Jose Cuervo, clutched tightly in the other.  The doors would close in thirty minutes.  No leeway.  Sid paid well enough, and he did right by the band, but at closing time he wanted everyone, and everything, out the door.

One of the waitresses, Katrina, let Brandt out the door, leaning to whisper as her enamel-tipped fingers worked the ponderous deadbolt.  “You look like a fucking dead clown.”

Brandt brushed past her, his shoulder sliding against her breast as he slipped into the night and turned down the road toward his apartment.  He walked away slowly, not even thinking about looking for his car.  No way was he driving.  The guitar case slapped comfortably against his leg as he walked, taking his mind off the last set.  Too much tequila.  Too much apathy.  Summed up in two words: too much.  He’d forgotten the words to a song he’d written himself, repeated the previous verse and mixed that up with the chorus.  No one had noticed.  He thought maybe Shaver had caught it, just before launching into the solo, but he couldn’t be sure.  The audience didn’t give a fuck what they played.  Shaver only lived for the solo.  Hard facts, but true.

Brandt thought about that for a long moment.  He tipped the tequila bottle up, took a slug, and capped it again, moving off down the street.  “Fuck them,” he said out loud.  “Fuck them all.”

The streets were empty.  The soft glow of street lamps pooled on the deserted roads, making each intersection a glowing oasis, and Brandt walked from one to the next, the tequila forgotten, words and music swimming through his mind.  He hated nights like this.  He hated the empty, nothing feeling of leaving a bar after a show where no one, not even the band, had cared.  Nothing.  Empty.  He hated being alone and drunk.  He hated the thought of his cave-like, nowhere apartment with the fading paint on the walls and electricity that only worked half the time.  It reminded him too much of his father’s home, and his father’s life.  It reminded him that no matter how many dreams he’d had, he was living in the image of his creator, minus the beer gut and the attitude.

His last private moment with a woman had been the landlady screaming about rent he wouldn’t earn at all unless the nights got better than this one.  More of the family scrapbook tossed in his face as the old bitch’s features had melted to his mother’s, the voice growing yet another octave shriller, piercing his heart and his gut.  Different voice, same message.  Loser.  Nobody.  No future.  Another swig of tequila, and he turned the corner to his block.

His building was one of many.  Too many, all the same, layer upon layer of box apartments with doors only different because they bore separate numbers.  Tiny worlds, each bleak and lonely, cut off from the others by walls too thin to block sound and too crumbled to hold paintings or coat hooks.

Brandt stumbled up the stairs, nearly fell, then recovered his balance just in time to keep from banging the guitar case on the dirty steps.  The tequila bottle struck concrete with a loud clink and he cursed.  Lurching up the final three steps, he leaned into the door and reached into his pocket for his keys.  Nothing.  He patted the tight denim, cursed, and shifted, letting the guitar come to rest at his feet and trading the Cuervo to his opposite hand.  The other pocket was empty as well.

“Fuck!” he said, leaning hard into the door, his head cracking painfully into the wood and leaving a dirty white smudge.  He leaned there, eyes closed tightly, blinking against the sudden attack of vertigo that assaulted his senses.  The car.  The keys had to be in the fucking car that he was too fucking drunk to drive, or even find.  No keys, no door, and he wasn’t about to wake that old bitch and tell her.  She’d leave him on the street.  She was ready to put him there anyway.

Brandt leaned for a moment longer, breathing slowly.  Sometime in the soft void of that moment, sometime between thought and darkness and thought again, the sound started.  It was hypnotic, dragging at his heart first and tugging his ears into service for the translation.

Music.  It was the crisp, clear voice of a harmonica, floating to him through the stillness of the late-night streets.

He listened, then pushed off from the wall, trying to orient himself.  Shaking his head, he considered taking another swig of tequila, thought better of it, and turned.  He couldn’t get in, and he couldn’t stay on the stairs, either.  Might as well find out where that music was coming from.

Brandt hit the street once more, turning the opposite of the way he’d come.  The music seeped out from the darker depths of the city.  Not safe there, he knew.  Not safe walking back for his car and chancing his alcohol-soaked mind to the streets, or the police, either.  He stumbled ahead, letting the music lead him and blanking out everything else.  It was beautiful, but sad beyond anything he could remember hearing, or experiencing.  Tears welled in the corners of his eyes and he brushed at them, smacking himself painfully in the head with the tequila bottle and cursing softly.

He didn’t recognize the tune, but it was blues, pure and sweet, blues so soul-deep that the voice of the instrument spoke in the place of a man’s lips.  The way it was supposed to be.  The way he wanted to feel when he played.  The way he felt when he kicked back, closed his eyes, and listened to T. Bone Walker, or Robert Johnson, or Billie Holliday.  The way the blues had not been played in so long they seemed banished to some fantasy realm that never was, the recordings elaborate hoaxes, mocking him with things beyond his reach.  Hot tears welled suddenly in the corners of his eyes.  He ignored them.  He knew they would run down, trickling trails through his ruined makeup, but he didn’t care.

Brandt hummed the melody, trying to commit it to memory.  He knew the classics.  He knew the old masters.  He did not know this song.  It was intricate, dripping with simplicity that was belied by quarter-tones and shivering trills of sound that walked the tightrope between notes, hinted of notes that were missing, between the C Sharps and D Minors.

Ahead an alley opened to his left.  He knew the place.  It had once been a packing dock for a shipping company, long since gone to ruin.  Brandt stopped.  He did not want to think about that alley, had thought far too much about it already.  A shiver transited his spine and he blinked once, unscrewing the lid of the tequila bottle and taking a long swallow.

The homeless gathered in that alley.  He saw the flicker of trashcan firelight winking and shimmering from the darkened entrance.  The music drew him, but his fears held him back.  Stalemate.  Brandt could see himself in that alley.  He could see the downward spiral of his life spinning him into it like a giant drain.

As he slowly screwed the lid onto the tequila, he noticed for the first time that there was a huddled figure seated at the entrance.  He tried to pierce the gloom and make out details, but he was still too far away, nearly a block.  Breathing deeply, he stepped forward again, gripping both guitar and tequila as if they were talismans of protection.

It was a woman, old and cloaked in layer upon layer of tattered clothing.  Spread out on the ground before her was a semi-circle of cards.  Tarot.  Brandt knew little of the brightly colored images, but he’d seen them often enough to know what they were.  As he entered the mouth of the alley, he glanced down, and she suddenly raised her gaze to hold his, trapping him in the depths of yellowed, rheumy eyes.  The music was louder now, captivating.  The tune had changed, sweeping up and down minor scales, each note lingering, blurring into the next.

The woman did not speak, but held out the deck to Brandt, her mouth opening slowly in a toothless grin.  He stared at her for a long time, not noticing the cards.  He stared until he realized what he was doing, then turned, embarrassed, face flushed with tequila and shame, and staggered into the alley.

“Crazy old bitch,” he muttered.

The alley was a chiaroscuro wash of shadows, contrasted against the backdrop of trashcan fires, their dancing flames too dim to clarify those gathered around them.  Brandt studied the darkened doorways and alcoves, but there was no sign of the musician.  Brandt cocked his head to one side, listening.  The notes were no less clear, but neither did they help him to narrow his search.  The tequila wasn’t helping either.  He narrowed his eyes, swept his gaze over the alley a final time, and lurched toward the wall of a nearby building.

There were no fires too near, no future-of-the-nowhere-musician wraiths to beg or harass him.  He spun, leaned against the dirty brick, and slid down to the ground with a soft thud.  Somehow he managed to hold the bottle up so it didn’t smash on the ground and the guitar case so his instrument wouldn’t crack or break.  His ass was less fortunate, but the Cuervo numbed the pain.

Without hesitation, he slid the guitar case to his side, unhooked the clasps, and opened the lid.  The polished wood glowed dimly in the flickering orange light.  Brandt stared at the instrument for a long time.  He wanted to play.  He wanted to play so badly his fingers itched and his mind whirled.  The whirling was too much tequila and not enough inspiration.  Then he heard the harmonica again, really heard it, and his hand slipped down to grip the neck of the guitar.  He pulled it free of the case, letting it rest gently and comfortably on his leg, and listened carefully to the melody of the lone harpist.  Brandt might not be able to find the man, but he could hear.  He could feel.

He remembered the barmaid’s words: You look like a dead clown.  He thought of Shaver’s comment on his newest version of the makeup he’d worn since his first performance.  It set him apart, erected a wall between Brandt and the band.  They did not join the “show,” or condone it.  He could play, write, and sing, so they let him be.

“It’s all such a drama to you,” Shaver had said, watching him apply the white-face and the rouge, the exaggerated eyes, lined in pain and outlined in deeper black than the shadowy depths of the bar’s corners.  “That shit went out with KISS.”

Brandt reached up gently, slowly tracing a nail through the smeared makeup.  Drama.  Shaver had no idea.  Brandt’s fingers slid to the strings gently.  His eyes closed.  He let his mind slide as well, let it slip to darkness, to thoughts of his bills, his landlady, anything to bring him down to those notes.  He felt his fingers twitch, reaching for the strings.  He held them back.  So deep.

He wanted to blend with that sound, to feel the notes flow up and through him.  He couldn’t bring himself to try.  Though the desire to play was a physical ache so powerful it nearly doubled him over, something even the tequila had failed to do, he held his fingers still.  Heart thudding a dull rhythm in his chest, he stared into the darkness, listening, as the tears flooded his eyes and washed down his cheeks again.  He couldn’t fucking play.

The sound took him back, months back.  The band had been on a rare road trip to the edge of town, opening for some skin-head local noise-mongers with a following and an attitude.  The set ended early.  Synthia had been drunker than Brandt himself, for a change, and had not been ready to call it a night.  Somehow her wobbly enthusiasm and half a hit of acid had brought them further still from the center of the city, to the fringes of a small carnival.  The Ferris wheel had been so short it seemed a toy, and the booths were lined with the seediest of the seedy.  Lost men and women, boys and girls, eyes vacant of humanity and burning with a hunger that only the laughter, money, and dreams of the uninitiated could sate.

Syn had been oblivious to it all.  She’d dragged Brandt, her small hand gripping his wrist, from booth to booth, through the fun house and its mirrors.  Long faces and short bodies, endless legs and his mind traveling the length of her ‘til they spun out and away again, ending in front of an old tent.  The doors to that tent flapped loudly in the stiff breeze.  The sign said simply, “Fortunes.”

They’d stood there a long moment, and then Syn had lurched forward.  Inside was a single table, a crystal ball resting on wooden feet in the center.  Syn had approached it fearlessly, dragging Brandt like a faulty anchor.  With a quick motion she’d spun him before her and pressed him into the chair, leaning over his shoulder gently, her lips so close to his ear as she whispered that he felt her hot breath, felt little sizzles of energy as the LSD sparkled through his senses.

“Find out the future, Brandt.  Find out how famous we will be.  Find out if you get lucky tonight.”  Her tongue had traced his ear then, and Brandt looked up.

There was an old woman seated across from him that Brandt hadn’t noticed when they’d entered.  She was cloaked in dark colors and slumped in her chair, eyes hidden by the deep folds of her robe.  All Brandt remembered were those deep, piercing eyes.  And the card.  The woman had long, slender fingers, bony and blue-veined.  Her nails were too long, curled under and yellowed.  She had flipped the card, a single card, before a word was spoken.  Before Brandt could protest that he did not want a reading, before Syn could cajole him into it, before reality could truly solidify in any real way, the fingers flipped, and the card turned.

The Fool.  Inverted.  Head down to the ground and ass to the stars.  Brandt had stared, mesmerized.  White-faced clown, idiot-savant, stepping into the void, long-fanged dog dangling from its grip on the fool’s ass—and the cliff.  Forever.  Everything and nothing, cost and lost in a single false, clueless step.

He’d staggered to his feet, turned to the door and fallen, Syn’s hand on his shoulder.  That had been all it took, that slight imbalance.  He remembered her cursing, his feet tangling and the ground rising much too quickly as he threw his hands out in a futile gesture of denial.  His chin had connected with moist earth, his eyes flashing with the strobed images of The Fool, and the ground, spilled drinks, and flecks of cotton candy filling his vision.  He’d crawled forward, trying to drag himself free of the crackling grip of the visions, the melting images of reality and the sudden pounding of pain in his head that threatened to cancel consciousness absolutely.

One hand at a time, fingers gripping the dirt and dragging him forward, he’d moved from the tent and rolled to his back, closing his eyes to clear his thoughts.  Syn was over him in seconds, face too close, voice too loud and slender fingers slapping him sharply on the cheek.  She’d spoken to him, but her words were slurred, lengthening impossibly and blurring to incomprehensible noise.  He didn’t know if it was his mind, or hers, that was snapping.

Brandt had opened his eyes then, and seen it.  Far above him, looming like a monstrous insect.  The Ferris wheel, so small and insignificant as they’d approached the carnival, loomed immensely, the image so powerful that it nearly stole his breath.  Brandt had watched, mesmerized.  Horrified.  His angle allowed a clear view of the bottoms of the seats as they spun down—feet, legs, and then faces.  He’d watched, and again, Syn’s hand cracking into his cheek, leaving white-to-red splotched images of her touch as the odd, disjointed music of the carnival played in the background.  The wheel had spun, and Brandt had seen the image clearly: the noose, dangling from the framework, and The Fool, dangling from the end in a St. Vitus Dance to oblivion.

Then it was gone, so many shadows, spinning up and away with the motion of the wheel, and spirits, LSD, and noise.  He remembered Syn helping him clumsily to his feet, scolding him for being a “weird fuck,” and the staggering return trip to the streets, to a dirty taxi neither of them could afford, and home, the images replaying relentlessly in his mind.

Brandt shook his head and the alley came into focus.  Shadows shifted, emptied of nothingness to be filled with slowly moving figures, bright-eyed wraiths shuffling from the darkened corners, a single unit of disjointed members.  There was no threat in their approach.  As they drew nearer, Brandt was able to make out the central figure through the glistening salt-haloed lenses of his tears.

Darker than the others, arms elbow-bent and pressing the harp to his lips, the man stopped directly in front of Brandt.  An old black man, his hair the gray of dark thread dipped in white paint, eyes not quite white any more, and glittering with captured firelight flickers.  No words, necessary or offered.  Music, and Brandt could not move, did not want to, and the tears flowed in a constant stream.

The notes flowed free and clean and when they stopped, they echoed through Brandt’s mind.  Brandt closed his eyes then, ignoring those who had gathered, guitar death-grip-clutched in straining fingers gone white from the effort of not failing.  He wanted to memorize the melody.  He wanted to make the notes his own, take them and dissect the pattern, find a way to bend fingers/mind/soul to that deep sadness.  They leaked through him and away, soaking into the grimy concrete floor of the alley and ringing in his ears, half-faded remnant of unrequited dreamsong.

The alley slipped away again.  Brandt was sitting in a room, clutching the guitar, a guitar, too fat somehow and clumsy.  It was his old room, his fucking room in that nowhere life he’d left to launch a nowhere life of his own.  He could hear Hank Williams Sr. wailing on the eight-track in the next room, could hear the lumbering thunder of his father’s snores, punctuated now and then by the soft glass-clink of his mother’s wine bottle dipping again to fill her glass.

The guitar was a cheap, rough acoustic with the logo Harmony at the top of the neck.  He had to press his fingers impossibly hard to bring the strings to the frets, and he frowned, concentrating through the pain.  Hank was calling to him, calling from a far away pain and sorrow, reaching out with soft-twanging heart-notes, but Brandt couldn’t quite concentrate through the other sounds.  He frowned, pressing the strings harder, as if the physical effort could erase the empty clink of glass and the crash as his mother stumbled into a wall, cursing.  He heard his father’s even, labored breathing hesitate . . . glitch . . . and rumble.  Then the snoring stopped, and there was a dead silence.

Brandt gripped the guitar so tightly his fingers grew white with the effort and he turned from the door.  He didn’t want to think of his mother retreating to him, hoping for a reprieve from something Brandt could not save her from.  He didn’t want to think about his father, bursting through the door after her, turning to Brandt because at least Brandt still felt the blows, still screamed when slapped.  He didn’t want to think at all.  His gaze locked to the twin clown portraits on his wall.  Sad attempts at decoration, at parenthood.  Deep-eyed guardians, impotent and leering, white faces glowing softly in the dim light of his bedside lamp.

Brandt shook free, so violently his head cracked back into the brick wall, and the images shattered, Hank Williams’ bittersweet voice melting to the soft hiss of traffic beyond the alley.  Brandt raised his eyes.

The old man squatted directly in front of him, head cocked to the side like an inquisitive dog, examining something intriguing.  Brandt blinked and sat up slowly, feeling suddenly conspicuous.  The harmonica rested easy and comfortable in the old musician’s palm, soul extension of his pain.  Brandt had a flashback to the pain behind that sound and blinked again.  This time he controlled the tears with a deep gasp of breath, shaking his head.

“Damn tequila,” he muttered, brushing the back of his hand over his eyes.

“‘Taint no damned tequila messin’ wif yo head, boy,” the man rumbled.  His voice was deep, gravel spurted under heavy tires, or cigarette smoke dipped in whiskey.

Brandt didn’t answer.

“Saw yo hands twitchin’ son,” the man went on, glancing at the guitar.  “T’ought a minute there yo was g’wan play wit me.  Me an’ ol’ Hank.”

“I wanted to,” Brandt whispered.  Nothing more.  He could read answers in the old man’s gaze, and yet they formed in his mind as more questions.  “What was the song?”

“‘Tweren’t no song.  Blue.  Key of blue, boy, my blues.  Last bit was yours.”

Brandt’s mind cleared a little.  “It was a song.  There was a melody, notes.  Music is a pattern.”  The words rung hollow, and the old man laughed gruffly.

“Then why yo don’ play ‘em, ol’ hoss?”

Brandt fell silent.  He laid his guitar aside and opened the tequila bottle.  Liquid courage.  He took a long swallow and held the bottle out to the black man, who took it with a toothless grin.  The bottle tipped up and Brandt watched in fascination as the old man’s Adam’s apple danced, an impossibly long dance that drained a full quarter of the golden liquor before it ended.  The man smiled, but he didn’t move to return the bottle.

“Who are you?” Brandt asked softly.  “Where did you learn to play like that?”

Long stare and the man straightened slowly, gazing down at Brandt with a mixture of curiosity and sorrow.  “Livin’ is learnin’ boy, so my pap said.  Lived those notes, ever’ one.  Nary a chord I don’ carry right here,” and his hand touching his heart, palm flat, trapping the harmonica against the rough material of his shirt.  “Carryin’ a bit of you now.”

That gaze was so still, so unwavering and serious.  Pure, like the music was pure.  The tears threatened again.  Brandt smacked his head on the brick of the wall and cursed softly.

“Always the same, boy,” the man said softly.  “You let ol’ Wally set you on the path.  Crossroads, crosshairs, all the same in the blues.  Knowed both kinds, which’re you?  You want to learn, there’s a price of years, lifetimes, damn worlds it costs, boy, all that and more.”

“Teach me?”  Words spoken and regretted the instant they left his lips.  Fool drunk sniveling in an alley, drunk on his ass and begging winos for lessons.  His gaze betrayed him, held steady.

“Cain’t be taught,” old Wally breathed.  “Gotta be lived, boy, price gotta be paid.  No blues ever come from a music lesson.  None.  Come from here,” leaning down and stabbing an ancient, gnarled finger into Brandt’s chest and holding, long second of contact, cold and dark, then away.


Wally’s eyes clouded.  He stepped back, not speaking, the Cuervo gripped tightly in one hand.

Brandt rose quickly, reaching to his pockets.  He didn’t have much, a crumpled five and a handful of change the remnant of his worldly treasure.  Cigarettes and coffee for a morning that was way too close already.  No sleep, and the hangover would not be mild, or easily shaken.

“I’ll pay,” he said softly.

Wally slipped forward and slid the five from Brandt’s fingers, ignoring the change, and then melted back in among his companions.  “You’ll pay boy, if you want the blues.  No money g’wan do it fo you.  Cain’t be bought.”

Turning, they left him.  Spectral gallery of shadow-faces never clearly seen, slipping from shadow to black and gone.  Brandt took a step forward, reached out to empty air.  No one stood before him.  No one walked through the nearby shadows, or gathered about the glowing coals of the barrel fires.  Red-orange hints of dawn stained the alley’s mouth, and the faint sounds of the city’s daytime insinuated themselves, distracting him further.

“Gone,” he whispered.  He dropped his face into his hands, standing for a long moment and fighting the sick-drunk nausea that clawed at his system.  No time for that now.  He felt the fingers of exhaustion tugging at his eyelids, drawing him toward darkness, and he knew he had to get out of the alley.  If he slept there, he’d wake with no guitar if he was lucky, and never wake at all if he was not.  In future years the alley might be the only solution, but for the moment he needed his car, his keys, and his bed.  He had to play again in twelve hours, and somehow he had to sleep without the images of long-trashed clowns glaring down at him from the wall over his head.  Mocking.

Brandt leaned down, secured the guitar in its case carefully, then turned toward the alley’s mouth and stumbled toward the sunlight.  In the back of his mind, very faintly, the voice of the harmonica rose once more, mocking him and hurrying his steps.  He stepped onto the sidewalk, but before he moved on, he glanced down, a sudden memory of yellow eyes and too-long, half-painted nails reminding him of the crazy woman.  She was gone.  Where she’d sat, a single dirt-streaked card leaned against the dusty wall.  Brandt leaned down, picking it up slowly.

On the card, a young man in a jester’s hat, face white-painted like a goth-boy death-mask rendered in porcelain, stepped off the brink of a cliff.  A dog, snarling and angry, gripped the clown by the ass, but it did not seem to register.  Brandt let his gaze slip lower and read the inscription.  The Fool.  Brandt memorized the lines of that face . . . the painted pretty-boy leer.

He turned toward the bar, and his car, the card released to float in a back and forth slip-dance through the early morning air.  It landed upright, the boy’s eyes gazing after Brandt as he stumbled away.

The sharp, too-loud clatter of the rusty Big Ben on Brandt’s dresser dragged him half out of the bed to slap it to silence, head pounding from the motion and the moisture-sapped fringes of his brain.  One thing about Jose Cuervo, he was always available for a date, but the fucker dressed and was gone before daylight every time.  Brandt managed to shift so that a stray ray of sunlight caught the face of the old clock.  Four-thirty.  Three and a half hours before setup and sound check.  No car in this condition, he was walking, and just enough time to hit the shower, then the coffee house, black coffee with a shot of espresso and an oversized blueberry muffin.  Story of his life.

Images of the night before tried to work their way into his thoughts but he pressed them down hard.  The steady pounding in his skull left no concentration for deep thought.  He needed every ounce of juice he could muster just to make it to the club and back to this bed with a performance and a paycheck in between.  Crazy old wino was welcome to the tequila; it was a damn good thing Brandt hadn’t finished it.

He glared at the clock.  Slow stumble to the shower and lukewarm water spiraling last night’s funk and the clammy sweat of tequila hangover shakes down the dingy drain.  Brandt stood under the steady stream, forehead pressed tightly to the tiled wall.  His gaze locked for a long moment on the grimy water whirling tornado-like into the tiny round abyss and he pushed back a little too hard, nearly falling.  He twisted the shower handles violently, staggered to his bedroom, and dressed, half-damp, in last night’s jeans and a fresh t-shirt, sprinkling himself with an anointment of cheap cologne and sliding a Kool between his lips with a practiced flourish.  He lit up and headed out, guitar slung over his shoulder.

The coffee shop wasn’t busy.  Thursday was a slow night everywhere, would be at Sid’s too.  Good damned thing.  No one to throw beer cans when Brandt’s half-numb fingers failed to draw the notes from the strings, or when his words wouldn’t slip past the dry-clutch of the cotton in his mouth and throat.  He watched the coffee in his cup swirling, and turned his gaze away, the memory of the shower drain too close to hand and heart.

“Fuck,” he muttered.

The coffee ended too soon and the night began with equal insensitivity to his plight.  Fingers shaking, he tried to light another Kool and found he could not.  Stopping and leaning against a dingy brick wall, Brandt took several deep breaths, squeezed his eyes shut, concentrated, then held the lighter still as he pressed the tip of the smoke into the flame.  Biting menthol cut through the haze, nicotine battered it into place, and he was moving again.

Shaver glanced up from his tuning and effects pedals as Brandt entered noisily.  Ignoring the shaven-headed guitarist, Brandt dropped his guitar case a bit too hard and cursed as he realized it, stumbling a half-step and righting himself carefully.  Shaver watched for a pregnant moment that said more than any words might have, shook his head, and went back to adjusting his amp.  Brandt cursed softly.  No buffer zone tonight.  His hands were still shaking, and he had a hard time keeping the glaring lights from blanking his vision with white-hot echoes of nothing.

Synthia glared at him in open hostility.  Her bass was tuned and ready, leaning against its tripod stand like some massive, sheathed weapon.  Her hands were on her hips, and her eyes flashed “don’t you dare fuck this up, you drunken motherfucker” at him in bright blue.  Syn was the one reason Brandt didn’t fear too close a scrutiny from the audience.  Most of the men and half the women’s eyes would be glued to her short, taut frame.  Brandt’s own eyes had spent enough time there; he knew the spell she could weave.

Behind them, his drumsticks clattering noisily as he waited, impatient and primed, Dexter scanned the room, occasionally sending flurries of rhythm scurrying about the room.  Dexter was oblivious to them all.  He lived from set to set, and from all the time they’d played together, Brandt had learned only three things about the young drummer.  He never slept, he never drank anything but black coffee, and he never missed a beat.  Never.

Paying customers filtered in, lining the bar and taking their places at the scattered tables, but the band paid them no attention.  Daylight retreated through the half-open doorway, banished from the windows by drawn blinds, and soft yellow pools of light formed beneath the dim lights.  Waitresses in dresses so short they gave away the soft colored secrets of their panties sauntered about the room, taking orders, flirting, and killing time.  Time was the one thing you had to kill at Sid’s; if you didn’t, it would never go away, and you would drown in the apathy.

Brandt accepted a Styrofoam cup of black coffee from a girl he vaguely knew as Shantaina.  He carefully avoided meeting the gaze of anyone in the audience, or the band.  The shakes were slowly abandoning his fingers, and for the first time since he’d sat up on his bed, he believed he might get a note or two out of the guitar.  He didn’t want to do anything to shatter that illusion.

The coffee clutched firmly in his hand, he headed backstage to the tiny closet they called a dressing room.  He had only moments before they would be looking for him on stage.  Fumbling under the counter, he dragged up his makeup kit.  The mirror was dust-crusted and grimy, but Brandt had a very clear image of what he would do.  The old card floated in the back of his mind, and the fool came to life, slow wash of mascara, deepening of the already deep hollows beneath his eyes . . . perpetual false smile, clueless and transcendent.  He finished, meeting his own stare for a long moment, and then turned back to the bar.  Something was in the air, rippling along his nerve-endings, but he couldn’t place it.

Brandt didn’t tune.  The guitar had been in perfect tune the night before, and he knew if he engrossed himself in that ritual now, it would be over.  He would fuck it up completely, be unable to get the pitch, and it would be bad.  Better to be a half-note off from the start and compensate.  His life was all about compensation.

Behind him he heard the soft shimmer of cymbals as Dexter determined the moment and the mood was right.  They always let Dexter choose the moment.  His timing extended beyond the drums to the surreal.  Besides, it was easier to follow, flowing into the beat, than to anticipate it.

Brandt closed his eyes and let his fingers fall naturally to the strings.  It was a slow number, slow and heavy, lots of sultry, hip-swinging beat for Syn to sync up on, but not too much for the rest of them right off the bat.  Blues—it was all the blues, in one form or another, but this was pure.  The melody was from a converted Hank Williams ballad, dissected, devoid of twang, but filled with deep, resonating tones and a heavy, slippery back beat.  It was an arrangement that Brandt himself had come up with in a rare lucid moment, and he silently thanked Dexter for realizing it would draw him in.  He had to get in quick, into sync, into the beat and the rhythm, into the sound, or he was lost.

He wasn’t certain when he first became aware of the presence at his shoulder.  He felt the moist-hot brush of fetid breath, caught the scent of dusty roads and sweat-stained clothing and in that instant, he heard the voice.

“You keep playin’, boy,” the old man whispered hoarsely, insinuating the rhythm of his words into the song.  “You forget what you see, you forget what you know, but you don’ forget to keep them fingers dancin’.”

Brandt shivered and closed his eyes tighter, but he did not stop playing.  There was a resonance to his notes, a fluidity that he had only felt small glimpses of in the past.  Memories sifted up through his thoughts, memories he’d buried and left for dead.  He shook his head, trying to concentrate on the music, to drive the invasion of pain away—failing.  Phantom videos of all that had hurt him most deeply strobed before his eyes and drew the pain from him one note at a time, white-hot threads pulled through heart and skin in a long, slow, unraveling sound as tears flowed freely down his cheeks.

The song shifted subtly.  Brandt no longer heard Dexter’s drums, or Syn’s bass, though he felt the rhythm shivering up from the floor to vibrate through his nerves.  Softly at first, then with growing insistence, the voice of a second instrument rose.  Brandt thought instantly of the old man’s harmonica, but as quickly realized it was different.  The sound trembled with emotion and vibrato, shivered with elegance.  Violin.  It was a single violin, the sound rippling against, then through Brandt’s guitar, harmonizing, then stealing the center of the melody, then slipping up and away in a sublime shimmer of sound.

A tight, cold talon squeezed Brandt’s heart.  An old man stepped from the shadows, white hair billowing about his head, glowing nimbus wreath wrapped tightly about the very image of tragedy.  Pain owned those features, rippled beneath wrinkled skin and forced expression after expression to play in a kaleidoscopic slideshow of angst.  Brandt gasped.  His eyes were still clamped tightly shut, but he could not erase the sight, could not look away from the sound as it wove around and through his notes.  Brandt did not stop playing, but the tears rolled in soft trickles off and away, wetting his shirt.

The visions that tore at his nerve endings shifted.  He played, but the club no longer existed.  His chair sat in the center of a dusty crossroad.  The violin played in the background, but he could not see the violinist.  The buildings that surrounded him were low to the ground and dingy, nothing distinguishing one from the next.  There were few windows, and he saw no movement beyond them.  The music took a subtle shift from the straight twelve-bar blues rhythm to a slow, torturous march.  His fingers made the transition and the phantom violin slipped to a staccato beat, pounding through the notes and matching them to Brandt’s suddenly speeding heartbeat.

There were footsteps as well.  Marching.  A small group of men rounded the corner.  Brandt shrank back, melting to the chair as he recognized what he saw, nearly crying out in negation before the scene shifted again.  He knew the uniforms, the black, over-polished boots.  The distinctive, high-reaching steps.

Now he sat in the center of a different crossroads, gaze locked to a different set of doors.  A line of people moved slowly and reluctantly through them.  He felt their fear, their uncertainty and the voice of the violin pounded it deeper, made him part of it.  A single set of eyes captured his and he trembled as the old man glared at him.  The violin was nowhere to be seen, but Brandt knew who played.  The musician shifted through the crowd, blended with the crush of bodies, and disappeared between the doors.  There was a sickening ripple as he felt a part of himself torn free and dragged along, scenes shifting to shadows and confusion.

People crowded on all sides, too close, too many, all terrified, and there were men moving among them, barking out commands in a language that meant nothing to Brandt.  Those surrounding him wore crude blue and white striped shirts—men, women, children—all the same.  Brandt was jostled, and then shoved hard.  He dropped painfully to knees that he knew were too thin, too arthritic to be his own.  He tried to break the fall, failed, and fought to regain his footing.

Those around him stared mutely through humiliated, pain-soaked eyes at the invading soldiers, and terror so deep and dark it melted from them and dripped to the floor, filling the room and flooding Brandt’s heart.  They were stripping.  Each of them, women, men, boys and girls, faces flushed in shame, peeling off their clothing as the men in their dark uniforms continued to command, and shove, and move from person to person without the slightest indication that they saw what happened around them.  The clothing was grabbed, tossed, gathered, and gone, so quickly the moment was a blur.  The terror that had been buried deep in the eyes of those surrounding Brandt seeped through his thoughts, imbedded itself in his mind and drove icy spikes into his spine.

Men were herded one way, no other word for it, moved like so many animals as the women split to the other side.  The words were no clearer to Brandt, but seemed to calm the others slightly.  The next thing he saw was a concrete room with walls lined in nozzles.  Showers?  They crowded in, too many, no way to be directly in the path of any particular spray.  The shower nozzles themselves were strange, and then the soft hiss of something escaping from the nozzles, something less powerful than steam, more insidious.

The doors closed behind them with finality—with the essence of death.  The room was immersed in a sudden dark, repressive fear.  Breathing became difficult and those near to Brandt panicked, moving toward the entrance, and the exit, opposite sides of the dark, empty room, equally sealed.  They pounded at the doors, more and more frantic with each passing moment.  Nails broke as they scratched and dug at strong wood with fragile flesh, digging into grooves already worn in the surface, and Brandt slid down . . . deep inside . . . away . . . he felt the chair beneath him again, heard the notes of the violin so dark and empty and yet full of emotion, tearing at his world and shredding it.

Brandt’s fingers moved of their own accord, ten-digit puppet controlled by the images, images controlled by the pain, beyond and behind it the song.  Brandt’s chords bent and shivered along with the lingering, trembling notes of the old violinist.  He saw the man again, alone, staring with cold, empty eyes as the bow danced over cat-gut strings, crying its song to the night.  Brandt’s eyes clouded with salty, stinging tears and he clamped them shut hard, biting his lip and dragging his fingers harder over the strings, trying to control the uncontrollable song, trying to insinuate his own lesser darkness over the oppressive voice of the violin.

He glanced up, high on the dull gray walls and saw a face, white and leering, makeup bleeding from the corners of the eyes to stain the walls, fading to stone and brightening to brilliant blood red.

The song shifted.  Brandt played through the hitch in his chest that threatened his breathing, played through the white-hot pain of fingers pressing too tightly to the strings, dragging so hard into bar-chords that skin nearly parted from the pressure.  The notes softened.  The mournful wail of the violin shifted down to the soft tearful voice of a recorder, or a flute, wood and wind, sound and sorrow.  Brandt played, eyes still so tightly closed he felt he could push away the presence of a world gone mad.

He felt a warm breeze on his cheeks, and slowly, very slowly, he opened his eyes again.  The sound of marching feet had faded to the soft shuffle of many feet, and the barking Nazi-soldier-voices were replaced by other whispers . . . no more comprehensible, but different.  The first sight that met his eyes was a trail, crossing another trail.  He stood alone in the center where the two met.

They came from his left, moving in a slow, straggling procession.  He saw broken faces, eyes lowered and steps that were only half the length they aspired to.  To one side of the trail a small girl stood.  Her gaze was locked to his, and at her lips a long, tapered flute, hand-carved of soft wood.  He tried to look away, to take in the panorama before him, but he could not.  She held him with the depth of her eyes and the emotion in her song.  He felt his fingers comply, twisting yet again and tracing unfamiliar chords as he accompanied in muted rhythm to her lead.

Then Brandt was walking.  His steps were short and his breath wheezed in labored gasps through trembling lips.  He wanted to voice a negation, but he could not form a word, could not waste the breath.  He staggered forward, feeling the weight of years he had never lived and the frustration of a once strong body, a once proud mind, cowed and broken.  He clutched a rough scrap of cloth about his shoulders, heavy and warm, but somehow gripping at his heart like a ball and chain.

Around him, others limped, staggered, and moved in a steady stream.  Those who had failed to continue were carried/dragged/tended, continuing despite their physical limitations.  Brandt shook in the grip of a fever, deep and dark, festering in his body and rotting his soul.  He shivered and walked and shivered again, each step seemingly the last he was capable of and all that time the flute-like tones of the girl’s song winding about him, coiling tighter and tighter.  He watched bodies half-dead, long, dark hair trailing behind the wooden sleds, drawn on by hand, mule, and the occasional horse, skin red with fever and lesions, lips parted and tongues lolling, eyes wild and bright and all the while, the slow, constant movement toward . . . what?

He glanced down at the blanket, saw the crudely stamped letters “US ARMY” and dark, mirthless laughter bubbled up from deep within his soul.

The blanket weighed more heavily on his shoulders, and he felt the lingering evil that permeated the coarse material, even as he drew it more tightly about him.  No way he could know, and yet he did know; the darkness of the smallpox lingered on each thread, weighed on his heart and mind and suddenly he realized, his fingers.  He played the sickness, the nausea and the darkness as eyes puffed and hearts slowed, as the act of putting one foot before the next became the act of placing finger after finger on vibrating strings and the soft voice of the flute pounded through his head, feverish and full of the pain of betrayal and emptiness.

He saw the girl now.  She did not stand beside the trail playing her flute, but trudged in the center of a pack of others, thin, emaciated to the point of either starvation or illness that rotted from the inside out.  Her steps were not proud.  They were defeated and monotonous, drawing her onward slowly and pointlessly.  The voice of false promise permeated the air.  The hitch in a trusting heart as sharp betrayal bit deep.  Brandt played and he followed the trail of tears and notes from the girl’s heart, to the soft dusty ground, to the bodies and the pain and back to his hands, always to his hands, drawing the music from the strings.  His world shifted and he clamped his eyes closed once more.

Somewhere his own pain was lost in that flow, his world and his life petty beyond comprehension in the face of it.  Dying, all but a few dying, and only the music to hold that pain.  Her music, his music, deep dark river of anguish rolling on like the tide.  He clamped his eyes tighter, and tighter still, and the music tilted one more time on an axis of surreality.  He stood this time, guitar strapped over his shoulder, swinging against him in tight, pendulous motions as he drew the notes from the strings.  It was the harmonica, sharp and bitter, driving through his rhythm and forcing his feet to move, one slow step at a time.  Brandt opened his eyes.

The crossroads was no different from a thousand others.  The trees were painted in the multi-hued colors of autumn and the wind whipped leaves about his ankles and sent them skittering across the road.  In the very center, head down, the old black man, Wally, stood and played.  His eyes were closed, his wrists quivered as he drew emotion in tangible threads from the small silver-metal harp.  Brandt moved forward, playing the rhythm as he had never played it, feeling the bite in the voice of his instrument and bending it to support the solo.  He wanted to close his own eyes and just stand and play.  He wanted to let that pain flow out and through and away to some other place, to find his way back to safe notes and melodies with a trace of hope, but he could not.

His hands were numb from the effort, and his caffeine-fortified, life-ravaged system barely kept him upright, but he played.  He was played.  The music would not release him, and then the harp was silent, and he played alone.  The old man vanished, glancing up and then sweeping away in the breeze, sifting to a wash of color that swirled among the dancing leaves and echoing deep pain in a last lamenting flurry of notes as he slipped away.

“Don’t stop yet boy, you stop, you’re on your own.”

That voice, so close, so sudden, nearly ended it.  Brandt felt his fingers tighten, felt the sudden weariness tear at him, but somehow he played.  He clamped his eyes shut and concentrated.

“Blues can get mighty deep, boy.  Mighty deep.  So deep you have to swim in them just to keep your head ‘bove it all and think.  Learned it a long time ago—a’fore you was born I learned, and I played.  Can’t never stop.  That pain, their pain, it’s yours now.  It’ll trickle into you slow-like, fill you from shoe to shaving cream a’fore you can stop it, and you just gotta play, gotta empty it back into the world where it belongs, or it’ll eat you inside to out, heart first, until there ain’t nothin’ left but a shell—‘til you wish you could go back to a happier time and share a drink with your damned drunken mom, or shoot pool with that prick you call a Papa.

“You don’t want to be a shell; I reckon you’ll play.  Just remember, whatever you do remember, and don’t let it get too deep.  Don’t fool yourself boy, you cain’t keep it inside . . . cain’t hold it all.  You let it out.

“Crossroads, or crosshairs, all the same.  No way outta the pain ‘cept t’rough da music, boy.”

And the voice was gone.  Reality rested on his shoulders like the final curtain of a stage tragedy.  The notes sifted slowly about in his mind, a procession of eyes passing across his mind’s stage.  The old man, the children, the gas, and the violin merging with the defeated, helpless notes of the flute on that long trail of more than tears, trail of extermination and so many others, so many things that had festered in the back of Brandt’s mind, pressed aside as unimportant in his private over-all view, now rising up to fill it.

He felt a soft touch on his elbow, and at last, he stopped.  The ache in his heart shivered out and down his arm and he opened his eyes, glancing at fingers so red and raw he wondered that he could move them at all.  He turned, and he found that Syn stood at his left shoulder, eyes wide, staring down at him.

“Brandt?” she said softly.

Brandt met her gaze evenly, only half-aware of the world he’d dropped back into so suddenly, trying to figure out what he would say to them, to figure out what they had seen, and heard.  The rest of the band stood in silence behind Syn, watching him.  Shaver held his guitar in one hand, and the only emotion in his eyes now was that of pain, as if something had been stolen from him.

“What was that, Brandt?  What the fuck was that?” Syn said, her voice never rising above a whisper.

Brandt rose slowly, the guitar neck gripped tightly in his one good hand.  He turned to the audience, the hangers-on and the drifters.  None spoke.  The girls did not wander from table to table, delivering shots of courage and charisma to the masses.  No bottles or glasses clinked and no voice rose in praise, or in anger.  Nothing.  He presided over a silent church of pain, white-faced harlequin entertaining them with tragedies they could no more comprehend than he could deny.

Brandt placed the guitar in its case, took the case by the handle, and moved toward the bar without a word.  Syn followed, for a few steps, and Shaver looked ready to burst into tears.  Brandt wondered if the boy had heard the pain, or if he only wanted the notes.  Brandt stepped behind the bar and gripped a bottle of Johnny Walker in his bloody hand.  The pain bit through his haze and he managed to croak out some unintelligible promise of cash.  Later.

Then he walked toward the door, and the night.  Somehow he knew there would be no “later” for him here.  He would have to move on.  Things would have to change.  Brandt didn’t feel like the center of it any longer.

Just as he reached the door, Shaver caught him.  The boy’s hand gripped his shoulder a bit too tightly, and Brandt turned to meet those intense eyes.

Without waiting for any questions he would not be able to answer coherently, Brandt spoke.  “Be careful, Shaver, be very careful.  They can get mighty deep.  Soul-deep.  You want to be careful you don’t drown.”

And then he was walking, the moon watching over his progress.  Deep in his heart the music washed and eddied, swelling with each soft wave.  He heard their voices, their music, and he hummed along softly.  It ached, but he could wait, for the moment.  Soon, though, he thought, stopping in an alley and tipping back the Johnny Walker, soon he would have to play.

In the shadows, the soft voice of a harmonica chased the discarded Tarot image down the gutter, dancing the white-faced harlequin in the clutch of a cold breeze.

Copyright © 2022 David Niall Wilson